Locked away in my home on the 197th night since the start of Pennsylvania’s pandemic restrictions I consumed the 1 1/2-hour HD broadcast of Tuesday evening’s presidential debate like one more cultural product identical to the other motionless-tasteless-lifeless-humorless offerings that no longer express distinctions between political events or art or film or music or literature. It’s all part of the same bland mass entertainment product that flows down the same giant pipes and then congeals inside our heads. The individual “products” that make up this viscous sociopolitical entertainment substance are the same, in part because they lack any relevance to my actual lived experience—what I see, what I talk about to people I know, my concerns about the well-being of anyone I care about, or anything I am curious about.
If any of these products seem relatable to you, I’m curious but skeptical. How? Why? I could differentiate the “debate” from other menu items on my television set by how quickly it could be found online, the length of time it required me to be tethered to the screen through which the product was consumed, and the associative idiosyncratic environmental memory from earlier in the day when I noticed for the first time that the leaves on the maple trees of my street had begun to turn the color of a copper penny.
The establishment media’s widespread histrionics the day after the debate were predictable, insofar as the sheer volume of dramatic interpretations were proportional to the ease with which the debate could be made to appear like an episode in a tightly plotted limited series about American politics. The high-pitched shrieking and distortions of the event’s substance fit without error into existing storylines about the radical left and the end of democracy, but hardly addressed the implications of three rich white men spittling non sequiturs for 96 minutes about billions of trees, cocaine, tax returns, and clowns. At odd intervals, former Vice President Joe Biden broke through the fourth wall and spoke directly to the camera, offering token recognition to the concerns of “you folks” on the other side of the screen.
It was on one such direct address from Biden that something of substance slipped through, seemingly by accident. “Millionaires and billionaires like him in the middle of the COVID crisis have done very well. Billionaires have made another $300 billion because of his profligate tax proposal, and he only focused on the market. But you folks at home, you folks living in Scranton and Claymont and all the small towns and working-class towns in America, how well are you doing?”
After the moment to register the excruciating economic pain and devastation inflicted by the pandemic, which exacerbated long-standing issues of wealth inequality and financial insecurity, Biden said, “this guy paid a total of $750 in taxes,” dutifully returning to the script which substitutes a constant chatter about President Trump’s myriad corruptions and personal failures for actual solutions to real-world American problems.
Both Biden and Trump touted their records and proposals for new American jobs, but employment for most Americans these days is a brittle shell of its former self, the cracked skin a snake leaves behind in a slither. The unions are gone, health care is a failure. If you’re white collar you’re never not on the clock, which as the late great David Graeber liked to remind us, was all the more bitter a pill to swallow since the job is probably bullshit anyway.
There were subjects that should have been discussed but which cannot be addressed because neither Biden nor Trump are much interested in fixing a representational government that pursues the interests of differing segments of a tiny elite whose well-being is increasingly divorced from the economic system of small and midsize businesses, which employ half of all Americans and which suffered in the first three months of the crisis alone 400,000 closures and bankruptcies. It came as no surprise that the $610 billion dispersed by the Paycheck Protection Program became a massive grift, operated not through a federal government agency but through American private banks, who gifted billions of dollars to Fortune 500 corporations and heavily capitalized large businesses, which treated the stimulus funds like found money on their balance sheets.
The debate, in fact, wasn’t really about politics or policy at all. Rather, it was a confusing form of product advertisement where two competing business systems fought over the flow of cultural products that sell the fleecing of the American middle class back to itself as entertainment. One side skinned moral virtue-signaling and false deference to identitarian factionalism, while the other dealt resentment and seething animus toward anyone trying to stop the leader from blowing up the social arrangements that have offered them a raw deal for decades, even if he has no cogent idea of what should replace it.
The shock and awe over Trump’s ostensible resistance to a peaceful transfer of power continued one party’s storyline, which tenuously clings to the belief that all of the problems that ushered Trump into office and which they believed are his responsibility alone will vanish once he’s been removed from office. False claims of a stolen election this year are the perfect plot point to carry Trump’s audience with him wherever he might take them after the White House, while allowing Biden’s audience to embrace a return to some underlying idea of normalcy that lacks even a flickering holographic existence, and which will be used as a lever to separate them even further from the possibility of reforming a system that is dead. I do not feel optimistic about what is coming next.
Sean Patrick Cooper is a journalist who has contributed narrative features and essays to The New Republic, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, and elsewhere. His first book, The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided will be published in April 2024 by Penguin.